Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

After spending three weeks in Michigan, Tom and I headed next door to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin.  Hitting Apostle Islands meant that we visited all three national lakeshores in one month:  Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks, and Apostle Islands.

When Tom and I planned this trip, we had multiple days at Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks.  We figured by the time we got to Apostle Islands, we would be tired of seeing the lakeshores on the Great Lakes.  Consequently, we only planned a few hours at Apostle Islands.  The best thing to do would have been to take a boat tour.  Second best would have been to go to the west side of the peninsula, where there are some hiking trails along the lake.  We didn’t do either of these things.

Instead, we went to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitors Center in Bayfield.  The Visitors Center is located in the restored Bayfield Courthouse.  It is a gorgeous sandstone building with extensive gardens on the grounds.  Unfortunately, the Visitors Center inside doesn’t match the grandeur of the outside.  There was a small gift shop where I was able to stamp my Passport book.  They also had a tiny museum display centered around a Fresnel lens.  The movie theater was closed.

We stayed in the Visitors Center about a half hour and we were only there that long because we forced the ranger to talk to us.  We asked her what there was to do at Apostle Islands.  She said there was nothing to do unless we took a boat tour and went to the islands.  While boat tours are an important part of the National Lakeshores, this was the first National Lakeshore we visited that didn’t have anything else to do.  We should have gone back the next day and taken a boat tour, but our schedule was full of reservations and appointments already.  The half hour we spent in the Visitors Center was the full amount of time we spent at Apostle Islands.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore deserved more from us.  The 22 islands are beautiful and pristine.  They are wonderful places to kayak, hike, and get away from people.  Even at the height of their season in June, July, and August, they only have a fraction of the visitors that go to the other National Lakeshores.  In 2021, they had a visitation record high attendance of less than 300,000 people.  Contrast that with Sleeping Bear Dunes which had visitation of over one million during July and August alone.  If you want solitude, Apostle Islands would be the place to go.

There are a few things that Tom and I found puzzling about the naming of the Apostle Islands.  The islands were named, as a group, by Jesuit missionaries, who liked to give holy names to new places.  But there are 22 islands in the group, not 12.  And none of the islands are named after any of the Apostles.  Instead, they have names like Basswood, Hermit, Gull, Otter, and Sand.  The largest island, and the only one inhabited year-round, is Madeline Island, and it is not a part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.  There used to be 23 islands, but one of the islands – Steamboat – disappeared in 1901 due to “unknown natural forces.”

If you plan a visit to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, I hope you will be wiser in planning your visit than we were.  Apostle Islands Cruises is the authorized concessionaire for the park and they offer several options including a Grand Tour and a Lighthouse Tour.  They also perform a shuttle service for those who want to camp on the islands overnight.

The Visitors Center in Bayfield is open daily from Memorial Day to the end of September.  It is open on weekdays during a couple of shoulder weeks before and after the summer season.  The Visitors Center is closed from the second week of October through the middle of May.  Boat tours generally run from Memorial Day through the end of September.